Nativism – the promotion of the rights of native inhabitants over those of immigrants – has been a longstanding component of American political discourse since the establishment of the United States in the late-18th century. Ironically overlooking the rights of Native Americans, white citizens of the United States have habitually and recurrently opposed the expansion of their societies into more culturally diverse units. A persistent aspect of American politics during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the reappearance of nativist tendencies in recent years carries significant rhetorical and ideological parallels to these earlier episodes. Lending credence to the affirmation that “‘those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”, it is important to appropriately understand these historical and long-running cultural concerns to better inform contemporary debate on the subject of immigration.
Here are 20 important moments of nativism in American history you should be aware of:
20. Denounced by Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, in 1798 President Adams and the Federalist Party instituted aggressive anti-immigrant legislation under the Alien and Sedition Acts
Passed by the fifth United States Congress and signed into law by President John Adams in 1798, the Naturalization Act, Alien Friends Act, and Alien Enemy Act were a series of bills designed to politically marginalize immigrants as well as discourage and reduce the levels of migration to the newly constituted nation. Proposed as a means of supposedly strengthening national security during the Quasi-War with France, the acts permitted the government to imprison or deport aliens considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” as well as any male citizen of a hostile nation over the age of fourteen during times of war.
Provoking outcry by Democratic-Republicans, supported at the polls by a majority of immigrants Jefferson rode a wave of resentment against the xenophobic legislation to the White House. Whilst the Alien Friends Act was allowed to expire in 1801 and the Naturalization Act replaced by a successor in 1802, the Alien Enemy Act remains on the statute books to this day. Appearing as Chapter 3; Sections 21-24 of Title 50 of the United States Code, the archaic bill was employed during World War Two to imprison and deport individuals of German, Japanese, and Italian origin.
19. An explosion of sectarian violence, ignited after decades of simmering tensions amidst longstanding anti-Catholic sentiment throughout the region, in 1834 New England Protestants burned and raised a Catholic convent
Since its foundation in the 17th century, Massachusetts had long possessed a history of intolerance towards Roman Catholicism. Established by Puritans – ideologically fanatical Protestants who believed the English Reformation had been too lenient towards non-adherents – the 1692 charter specifically excluded rights for Catholics. Constructing an Ursuline convent in 1826, the mission offered education to all denominations, retaining forty-seven students by 1834 of whom only six were Catholic. With anti-Catholic violence simmering across the region during the 1820s, in early August 1834 rumors began spreading of a “mysterious woman” held against her will and being tortured at the convent.
Despite being offered a tour to see for themselves the falseness of the story, on the evening of August 11 a mob formed outside the convent. Despite calling for the fire brigade, who arrived and watched the events unfold, barrels of tar were set alight and convent breached by rioters. Raised to the ground within only a couple of hours, the following day the Catholic militia of Boston was activated to defend other properties. Turning back nativists at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Boston’s arsenal, the mob returned to the unguarded ruins of the convent to destroy the gardens and orchards.
18. The co-developer of Morse Code, Samuel F. B. Morse harbored intensely xenophobic and anti-Catholic views, seeking to impose his vitriol in an unsuccessful bid to become Mayor of New York City
Samuel Finley Breese Morse, after a successful life as a painter and inventor, is most remembered today for his subsequent development of the eponymous signal for telecommunications. However, despite his many praiseworthy accolades and accomplishments, Morse was also aggressively nativist in his political opinions. A prominent figure of the anti-Catholic and anti-immigration movements of the mid-19th century, Morse sought to institute a ban on Catholics holding public office and proposed altering immigration laws to inhibit migration from Catholic countries. In fact, Morse’s hatred for Catholics was so severe that during a visit to Rome he angrily refused to take off his hat in the presence of the Pope.
Claiming the Austrian government, alongside Catholic philanthropic organizations, were secretly organizing and financing Catholic immigration into the United States in order to subjugate and enslave the nation, in 1835 Morse published his treatise as Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States. Proclaiming also that slavery was morally just as it was sanctioned by God – a common argument of the defenders of slavery during the mid-19th century – Morse ran the following year in the New York mayoral elections as the candidate for the Nativist Party. Demonstrating the limited scope of his views at this time, Morse lost decisively, receiving only 1,496 votes.
17. The Philadelphia Nativist Riots, also known as the Bible Riots, were a violent response by Protestant nativists to the Philadelphia’s school boards tolerance of Catholic Bibles in schools
With the industrialization of Philadelphia, the former capital of the United States became a hub for migration during the first half of the 19th century. Predominantly from England, Ireland, and Germany, these principally Catholic immigrants became increasingly the focus of nativist discontent. Outraged by the agreement of the Board of Controllers to permit children to read whichever bible their parents chose, rather than requiring the King James version, the incident was further twisted and exaggerated into an alleged attempt by Papists to ban non-Catholic worship. Inciting rallies and protests throughout the city against the supposed removal of Protestant Bibles from schools, nativist groups took to the streets.
On May 6, 1844, a rally led by the American Republican Party erupted into violence between Irish Catholics and Nativists. Spilling into the streets, several homes of prominent Catholics and the Seminary of the Sisters of Charity were attacked during the riot. Calling on Americans to defend themselves from “the bloody hand of the Pope”, the nativist mob attacked the Hibernia fire station before burning down a Catholic church. Attempting to trigger a second, more expansive and deadly riot on July 6, local militia, aware of the efforts in advance, were able to turn back the xenophobic rioters with minimal damage and cost of life.
16. Winning more than one-fifth of the popular vote in the 1856 presidential election, the Know-Nothing Party was a savagely anti-immigrant and xenophobic political movement during the 1850s
Initially beginning under several disparate banners, including the American Republican Party and Order of the Star Spangled Banner, the Native American Party, later renamed the American Party and known colloquially as the Know-Nothing movement, was a nativist political party active during the 1850s. Believing in Romanist conspiracy theories alleging Catholics in North America were seeking to subvert liberties and religious freedoms, the movement sought to organize so-called “Native Americans” – those whose white ancestors predated the revolution – into a political force against immigrants and defend the Protestant faith.
Acquiring their popular moniker from their semi-secret nature, with members asked about their activities supposed to reply “I know nothing” – a response quickly lampooned by their political opponents – the American Party attempted to exploit the collapse of the Whig Party following the Kansas-Nebraska Act and force an opening for a new political party. Electing fifty-two Representatives in the 1854 elections, achieving also a high point of five Senators, former President Millard Fillmore ran on the party’s ticket in 1856, winning 21.5% of the popular vote. Declining after the 1856 elections, following the decision of Dred Scott v. Sandford its members splintered between the Republican Party and the Constitutional Union Party.
15. Known as Bloody Monday, anti-immigration supporters successfully disrupted the 1855 Louisville elections and led a violent mob against the homes and businesses of German migrants
Louisville, Kentucky, akin to other major cities on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, experienced dramatic growth during the 1830s and 1840s as a result of mass migration from Germany and Ireland. Predominantly Democratic voters, by the mid-1850s these migrants comprised one-third of the city’s white (and hence franchised) population. Inflaming Republican sentiment, the American Party sought to take advantage of the discord. Forming armed groups to “guard” the polling stations on election day on August 6, 1855, these Know-Nothings attempted, by force, to prevent immigrants from voting.
Rapidly escalating, by the afternoon rioters had murdered fifteen people and already attacked several homes of German migrants. Equipped with shotguns and rifles, the mob marched on the German parish of St. Martin of Tours. Persuaded by the Mayor of Louisville to not raise the settlement, the group subsequently roamed the streets, attacking any immigrants they encountered and burning houses and businesses. In total, at least twenty-two people were killed, along with dozens injured and countless properties gutted. Although five people were indicted, they were all acquitted at trial by Protestant juries and no compensation was paid to victims. In the riots’ aftermath, more than ten thousand individuals emigrated from the city, crippling its economy and reducing it in comparison to regional rivals St. Louis and Cincinnati.
14. The first restrictive federal immigration law in United States history, the Page Act barred Chinese women from entering the country out of fear they would give birth to American citizens
Chiefly coinciding with the California Gold Rush, Chinese migration to America provoked considerable consternation. Concerned about the effects of the Chinese upon white moral purity, these cultural fears were amplified by the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Stipulating that all persons born in the United States were automatically citizens, white Americans became outraged that Chinese females, an increasing prevalence and commonly employed as prostitutes, would beget American citizens. Responding to the “serious threats to white values, lives, and futures”, in 1875 Congress instituted the Page Act.
The first restrictive federal immigration law in American history, signaling an end to the era of open borders, the Page Act prohibited the entry of Chinese women into the United States. Proposed by Representative Horace Page to “end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women”, the bill barred “undesirable immigrants” whilst simultaneously expanding the definition of undesirable to encompass East Asian women. Heavily enforced, with a fine of $2,000 and a year in prison for those found in violation, the efficacy of the act was brutal. By 1880, the Page Act had successfully decreased the proportion of females among the nation’s Chinese population to just 4.6 percent.
13. Despite himself being an Irish immigrant to the United States, Denis Kerney led the Workingmen’s Party of California on a violent crusade against Chinese migration to America
Born in Oakmount, County Cork, Ireland in 1847, in 1868 Denis Kerney emigrated to the United States. Becoming an American citizen and establishing a successful drayage business, Kerney rapidly became a leading advocate for worker’s rights in his opposition to monopolized industries in San Francisco. Despite being an immigrant himself, as well as the victim of sustained xenophobic abuse for being a “foreign agitator” as the face of the Workingmen’s Party, Kerney was intensely racist against Chinese migrants. Denouncing the arrival of Chinese immigrants as the cause of white unemployment, by 1878 Kerney had become militant in his outrage.
Giving increasingly angry and violent speeches before crowds of thousands, always ending with the slogan “the Chinese must go”, in 1878 Kerney issued an ultimatum to railway companies. Commanding them to fire their Chinese laborers within three months, Kerney invoked the memory of Judge Charles Lynch during the Revolutionary War as a threat. Embarking on a nationwide tour to spread his message, on August 5 Kerney spoke before a packed house at Faneuil Hall in Boston. Despite his popular appeal, Kerney’s socialist political tendencies were to be his downfall. Unable to attract beyond his core demographics, Kerney, claiming victory in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act, subsequently faded into obscurity.
12. Banning all migration from China to the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act cruelly separated families and reduced immigrant laborers to second-class status until the mid-20th century
Following the Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868, the United States established formal friendly relations and granted China the status of most favored nation vis-Ã -vis trade. In response to the populist anti-immigration movements at home, the United States sought modifications to this arrangement under the Angell Treaty in 1880. Whilst confirming to preserve the protections of Chinese laborers already present, the new treaty permitted the American government to temporarily suspend the immigration of laborers from China. Signed into law by Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act built on the aforementioned Page Act to appease nativist tendencies.
Proscribing for the first time in federal law the entry of an entire ethnic group, the act prohibited all migration from China to the United States. Barred for an initial period of ten years, despite the agreement to uphold the rights of existing migrants, Chinese workers already in the United States were horrendously affected by the law. Unable to leave, these existing communities were cut off from their families in Asia. Concurrently, their statuses were downgraded to that of “permanent aliens”, excluding them from ever attaining citizenship. Renewed in 1892, and made permanent in 1902 under the Geary Act, it would not be repealed until 1943 when a less than generous 105 Chinese per year were subsequently allowed to enter the country.
11. Boasting a peak membership of three and a half million, the American Protective Association sought to rally support against an alleged Catholic plot to control the United States
After the defeat of Mayor Arnold Walliker in Clinton, Iowa, on March 13, 1887, led by Henry Bowers a group of local nativists gathered to discuss the loss. Blaming their failure on Catholics, whom members of the group equally held responsible for the Civil War, the gathering elected to form a new organization devoted to preventing the secret Papist takeover of American government. Initially small, the American Protective Association grew steadily to more than 11,000 members by the start of 1892. Garnering mainstream attention nationwide, by the middle of the decade the organization had expanded further, encompassing more than 100,000.
Claiming at its peak to enjoy millions of members – a figure disputed by the historical record – the organization began circulating alleged evidence of a Papist plot against the United States. Chiefly composed of forged documents, the movement sought to influence elections to produce candidates, typically Republicans, favorable to their worldview. Credited with aiding the Republican landslide victories in 1894, the APA’s message declined in popularity relative to free silver concerns and the controversy surrounding monetary policy two years later. Collapsing by the end of the decade, the APA was formally terminated with the death of its founder in 1911.
10. An attempt to compel only English to be used in schools consisting predominantly of German speakers, the Bennett Law was advocated for by ardent nativists who denounced foreign aliens as seeking to destroy the American nation
Passed in 1889, the Bennett Law required the use of English in all major subjects throughout both public and private elementary and high schools in Wisconsin. Comprising a significant proportion of German Catholics and Lutherans, as well as Polish Catholics, German, not English, had become the language of choice in many communities. Although resented by migrants upon passing into law, the statute was initially enforced only sporadically. However, following the Republican nomination of William D. Hoard – a dairy farmer with no political experience – in the 1888 gubernatorial elections, Hoard dramatically sought to impose the Bennett Law in full.
Regarding opposition to the law as an attack on the English language, Hoard claimed Wisconsin schoolhouses were under assault by immigrants. Planning his re-election bid in 1890 around a coalition of nativists, Hoard declared “the parents, the pastors and the church have entered into a conspiracy to darken the understanding of the children” and only he could save them. However, in proclaiming a fight against “alienism”, Hoard rattled the hornet’s nest. Milwaukee, for example, enjoyed a population where eighty-six percent had foreign-born parents, and even the originally supportive Irish became incensed by Hoard’s anti-Catholic rhetoric. Ousting Hoard from office, in 1925 the Supreme Court ruled similar legislation to be unconstitutional.
9. Believing that Anglo-Saxons were racially superior to even other white Europeans, the Immigration Restriction League campaigned for decades to introduce racial screening and quotas into American law
Founded in 1894 by three Harvard alumni – Charles Warren, Robert DeCourcy Ward, and Prescott F. Hall – the Immigration Restriction League was instituted upon the core belief that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were racially inferior to the superior Anglo-Saxon species. Concerned about the impact of these lesser beings upon the American way of life, blaming them for introducing crime and poverty into the previously utopic nation, the group supported and promoted stringent restrictions on immigration. Attracting endorsement from several prominent scholars of the New England elite, the group attempted to build a broad-church coalition against migration.
Proposing several “solutions” to the supposed ethnic crisis, the League submitted suggestions including the increase of passenger duties for foreign aliens from two to five dollars, a rapid increase in immigration inspectors and deportation facilities, and the compulsory medical screening of prospective migrants including the right to reject those deemed “unsuitable” in accordance with eugenics. Most prominently, in 1918 the League introduced a bill in Congress to rectify the racial imbalance among migrants, restricting the almost one million southern and eastern Europeans entering America to less than three hundred thousand whilst augmenting the two hundred thousand northern and western Europeans to more than one million.
8. A fixture of anti-immigration campaigns from the 1890s through to the end of the First World War, literacy requirements were persistently advocated as a means to reduce unwanted migration from particular nations
Supported heavily by union organizations such as the American Federation of Labor, as well as explicitly nativist movements such as the Immigration Restriction League, literacy tests were devised as a means to limit the total number of immigrants. Designed as a method to inhibit migration without resulting in a dramatic backlash from “old” immigrants – those from Britain, Ireland, Germany – literacy tests specifically targeted “new” migration in particular from Asia. Becoming part of the Republican Party’s official platform in 1896, towards the end of the same year the first literacy bill was passed by Congress.
Stipulating an immigrant must be able to read at least forty words in any language, President Cleveland, under pressure from corporate industry which required access to cheap manual labor, vetoed the bill in 1897. Similar bills were introduced and passed by Congress in 1913 and 1915, with Presidents Taft and Wilson vetoing on both occasions. However, in 1917 Congress overrode Wilson’s second veto on the subject to impose literacy requirements for naturalization. Stipulating immigrants seeking citizenship aged sixteen or over must be able to read thirty to eighty words in any chosen language, the limited scope of the requirement did little to discourage European migration in the aftermath of World War One.
7. Facing similar nativist hatred as the Chinese, Japanese migrants to the United States suffered ill-treatment and eventual exclusion by mutual national consent under the “Gentleman’s Agreement” of 1907
Unlike their Chinese counterparts, the Empire of Japan operated a strict policy of isolation which restricted the migration of its people. Gradually opening to the world, some of the earliest Japanese migrants only arrived in the United States in the aftermath of an 1894 treaty promising open immigration and worker’s protections. Despite only growing to one percent of California’s population by 1906, anti-Japanese sentiment quickly became endemic throughout American nativism. Requiring Japanese children – numbering just 93 in California – to attend racially segregated schools, in 1905 the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League was formed to advocate the extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act to all Asians.
Seeking to “preserve the image of the Japanese people in the eyes of the world” and avoid the humiliation China endured with the Exclusion Act, after President Roosevelt proved unable to compel states to reverse their anti-Japanese policies the two nations entered into negotiations. Reaching a compromise in February 1907, the Japanese government agreed to stop issuing passports to those seeking to enter the United States whilst America would strengthen the rights of those already residing. Spurring an increase in “picture brides”, the overwhelmingly male Japanese population in America would enter into arranged marriages to circumvent the agreement and bring their new spouses to the continent.
6. Taking more than four years, the influential Dillingham Commission was responsible for a voluminous congressional report which concluded particular ethnic groups of immigrants risked the destruction of the American nation
Following sustained pressure from advocates of enhanced immigration controls during the early years of the 20th century, in 1907 Congress instituted the United States Immigration Commission. A bipartisan special committee chaired by Republican Senator William P. Dillingham of Vermont, the joint committee comprised members of the both the House of Representatives and the Senate with the stated purpose of studying the origins and consequences of recent immigration trends. Concluding its work in 1911, the Dillingham Commission published an absurdly lengthy forty-one volume report; a planned forty-second volume was never completed.
Determining that immigration from southern and eastern Europe represented an existential threat to the United States, the commission recommended Congress enact a “literacy test as the most feasible single method of restricting undesirable immigration”. The nativist and xenophobic findings of the committee would influence legislation for years to come, being cited as the gold-standard throughout the 1920s. Dillingham, himself becoming a leading Progressive-era spokesperson against immigration, ardently supported his findings, continuing throughout the remainder of his tenure in Congress to champion the view that immigration by ethnic groups other than Anglo-Saxons posed a serious threat to the American nation.
5. Influencing the racialist policies of white supremacy that engulfed the West during the first half of the twentieth century, Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race became a leading source for theories of Nordic superiority and a core text of American nativists
One of the foremost works of the twentieth century concerning scientific racism, The Passing of the Great Race: Or, The Racial Basis of European History by Madison Grant, published in 1916, became a leading source for those who subscribed to theories of Nordic superiority. Claiming the original colonial inhabitants of North America – white Protestants – were being out-bred by inferior racial stocks, Grant contended the United States’ success and greatness stemmed from its Nordic ancestry and was being undermined by competing socio-political systems being introduced by lesser races.
Predicting that without action to avert this crisis the Nordic race would be made extinct, Grant provided a detailed history of the three classifications of European races: Nordic, Alpine, and the Mediterranean. Connecting separate schools of thought regarding the superiority of Aryans, Grant’s work became central to pseudoscientific theories of racial supremacy. Supporting the compulsory sterilization of “undesirables” and “weaklings”, the book received positive reviews, a wide readership in the United States, and would later influence the racialist beliefs and policies of leading members of the Nazi Party in Germany. Adopted in particular by Heinrich Himmler, the Lebensborn Society was founded in 1935 to preserve the purist Nordic genes from infection with inferior racial-genetic traits.
4. Although only short-lived, the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, promoting a nativist agenda in defense of white Protestants, enjoyed a peak membership in the millions during the 1920s
Following the release in 1915 of The Birth of Nations, glorifying the first Klan and its objectives, the second Ku Klux Klan was founded the same year by William Joseph Simmons at Stone Mountain, Georgia. Reflecting contemporary nativist concerns, the new organization expanded its racialist beliefs to include an anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic platform. Unlike the first and third iterations of the KKK, the Second Klan chiefly sought to “protect the interests of white womanhood” from religious and ethnic deviancy. Approximately two-thirds of the Klan’s lecturers at this time were Protestant ministers, adopting during this time a uniquely religious twist on its ideology.
3. Reflecting the intensification of nativist political opinions in the United States, the early twentieth century saw Congress institute increasingly stringent requirements and proscriptions against prospective migrants
Following Henry Cabot Lodge’s initial attempt to introduce a literacy test – seeking in the 1890s to require immigrants to recite five lines from the Constitution – efforts to impose similar restrictions upon migrants were ubiquitous throughout the early twentieth century. With immigration statutes providing for the exclusion of “undesirables”, efforts were made to manipulate this clause to include an increasingly large array of individuals. The Immigration Act of 1903 would be the first, expanding the categories to include anarchists, epileptics, and the mentally ill, whilst the Immigration Act of 1907 supplemented the list with those possessing physical deformities.
Overturning President Wilson’s veto, on February 5, 1917, the Immigration Act of 1917 was passed into law. Also known as the Literacy Act or Asiatic Barred Zone Act, the bill dramatically expanded the list of “undesirables” to encompass “feebleminded persons”, “idiots”, and “political radicals”, as well the “mentally defective” which included homosexuals. Furthermore, spanning much of Asia and the Pacific Islands, a barred zone of migration was introduced prohibiting entry by individuals from these nations whilst simultaneously imposing a literacy test on prospective immigrants. Challenged in the courts, with components gradually reduced in severity, the barring of homosexuals remained part of the U.S. immigration code until 1990.
2. Severely restricting migration from unfamiliar countries in the aftermath of the First World War, the Emergency Quota Act imposed a harsh cap on immigrants that lasted for decades despite being supposed to only be temporary
With the end of World War One, the destruction caused by the conflict, the resultant dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, as well as the Russian Revolution and ongoing Civil War, the United States faced a significant increase in migration from Europe. Seeking to escape the social and economic turmoil of Europe, these arrivals, comprised heavily of Jews escaping persecution in Eastern Europe, fueled a resurgent wave of nativist sentiment in American politics. Sponsored by Republican Representative Albert Johnson of Washington State, the Emergency Quota Act, also known as the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, was introduced to address public concerns.
Passed without a recorded vote in the House and by 90-2-4 in the Senate, the bill restricted the number of immigrants admitted per country annually to three percent of residents from that country already living in the United States at the time of the 1910 census. Consequently favoring countries with a historical record of migration, namely white western Europeans, the act reduced the number of new immigrants admitted from 805,228 in 1920 to just 309,556 in 1921-1922. Intended only as a temporary measure, the National Origins Formula quota system remained in place until it was exchanged under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
1. Designed to “preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity”, the Immigration Act of 1924 banned Asians from migrating to the United States and sought to eradicate Jewish immigration due to the supposed immoral effect of Jewry upon American society
Whilst the Naturalization Act of 1790 permitted only individuals of white descent to be eligible, in 1870, following the Fourteenth Amendment, this criterion was widened to those of African origin. Igniting popular outrage among nativists, by the 1920s the First Red Scare had induced a widespread xenophobic fear of foreigners and their effect upon American society and values. Seeking to protect the “superior” ethnic composition of the United States, the Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Asian Exclusion Act or National Origins Act, made permanent several limitations on immigration into the United States and hardened the requirements for prospective migrants.
Supported and campaigned for by the KKK, the act effectively banned immigration from Asia by prohibiting settlement by individuals ineligible for citizenship. Furthermore, the statute imposed an eighty percent reduction on pre-World War One averages on the total immigration permissible from outside the Western Hemisphere, allowing only 165,000 in total. Seeking also to reduce the influx of Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, the quotas laid out in the Emergency Act three years prior were reduced further. Rather than the original three percent, the 1924 act lowered this figure to just two percent whilst simultaneously moving back the historic marker to the 1890 census.